By Irene Etzkorn on Jul 23, 2014
I am feeling disheartened and disillusioned. Each day, I hear people lamenting how difficult it is to make decisions about their finances and their health: smart people, old people, healthy people, wealthy people, heroic people, ordinary people. No one feels confident that their insurance is adequate, their retirement is secure, their children’s education is funded or their medical care assured.
The dynamic between citizens and the U.S. government has now become one in which people must jump through hoops to access government services and benefits, such as Social Security retirement, veterans’ health care and student loans. Last year Alan Siegel and I co-authored a book entitled, Simple: Conquering the Crisis of Complexity. We pointed out how confusion in the commercial marketplace costs consumers and businesses.
Even more alarming is the distance that is growing between citizens and our government as our services become inaccessible due to arcane rules, mountains of paperwork and pages of legalese. Democracy relies upon trust, which is accomplished through clarity. Complexity, on the other hand, creates suspicion and confusion.
Soldiers feel hoodwinked when they serve their country and then get trapped by a blizzard of 613 forms across 18 agencies when they seek assistance. Workers toil for 40 years and then find they can’t understand how and when to access their long-awaited Social Security retirement income.
Over the past 25 years, the government has actively promoted self-reliance and encouraged citizens to make their own choices. But now that we must decide, there is such a maze of confusion that no one can be confident that they are making an informed and wise choice.
Companies have sprung up just to help retirees figure out when to take their Social Security, whether to collect on their own or their spouse’s earnings and whether to earn additional income while retired. Thousands of dollars are at stake as mind-numbing rules pile up, one contradicting the other.
When we reach age 65, we can turn to the Medicare Handbook but the official, 152-page Medicare & You only makes evident how convoluted the Medicare system is and presents another wave of endless choices. The young are similarly affected. The FAFSA form used to request college financial aid has more than 100 questions—the length of the 1040 income tax form.
What can we do about this? Complain to our legislators and the White House while voting accordingly. Some politicians are listening and responding. Just last week, Senators Lamar Alexander and Michael Bennet announced they are introducing legislation to slash the FAFSA to just two questions concerning family size and income, since all other relevant financial characteristics are derived from those two factors. This is precisely the type of innovative and pragmatic response we need.
Across the board, we need to approach access to all significant government services with a blank slate. Patent applications, immigration petitions, federal employment forms, disability decisions—all of these should be reconsidered using the lenses of empathy, distillation and clarity. Our goal should be the fewest possible number of questions, words and steps that reflect real-world circumstances of use, expressed in plain, familiar language.
We should also use social media to publicize each time we encounter a government “runaround” or wave of impenetrable paperwork. Tweet at confusing agencies and those that exist to gather our complaints, such as the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, Federal Trade Commission and Food and Drug Administration. The immediacy and volume of social media comments will garner notice and response.
A few years ago, the European Union paved the way for consumer pushback by allowing customers to seek refunds and even file lawsuits if they bought unassembled furniture that could not be put together based on the instructions provided by the seller. Until we, as citizens, declare unclear information unacceptable and dangerous, government agencies will continue to take the easy way out. Shorter, clearer writing is much harder to achieve than verbosity. When treated as an afterthought, rather than an integral part of the development process, communication suffers and ultimately democracy is undermined.
Irene Etzkorn is Chief Clarity Officer at Siegelvision and believes complexity is the greatest barrier to progress. Siegelvision helps organizations achieve clarity of purpose, clarity of expression and clarity of experience. Follow her on Twitter at @Irene_Etzkorn.